Did you catch Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight on Tuesday evening this week? They did a piece on the future of the UK high street and caught up with Mary Portas on her travels around the UK, albeit that she appeared to find the intervention of the BBC’s roving reporter rather irritating!
Statistics banded around included the statement that 14% of UK high street shops were now vacant, this accounting for 29,000 buildings.
The towns suffering the most in terms of voids in the grip of the current recession were stated as Dewsbury, Margate, Rotherham, Hartlepool, West Bromwich and Dudley.
It is not surprising that these are towns which are economically challenged in terms of industry, business and economic prospects coupled with unemployment issues. In the retail context, it is relevant to note that many of these towns have been impacted by other significant retail developments.
Dudley and West Bromwich have not really recovered from the development of Merry Hill. Similarly Rotherham was caned by Meadowhall and Hartlepool by competing developments in Newcastle and out of town around Middlesbrough.
One can reasonably take the view this is simply market forces at work and the survival of the fittest.
We heard some brief glimpses from Mary Portas into some of her thinking coupled with other observations from the Newsnight panel guests which included Rodney Fitch.
They concluded that we may have to “give up on some towns”; we are into a period of permanent change; town centres will not have the mix we have seen over the last 20 years; conversion of retail to residential and other uses appropriate in a general social context but not necessarily commercial, would become common place.
This is a sentiment echoed earlier this week by Francis Salway, Chief Executive of Land Securities when speaking at the annual EPRA Conference “there is going to be a decade of significant change and there will be some permanent losers in terms of retail property as we have seen it across a number of high streets across the UK”.
Much of the blame for the place we find ourselves was parked at the doorstep of the foodstores, development of out of town shopping and perhaps surprisingly that simply some local shop keepers do not do things well enough.
Improved accessibility coupled with quality and free car parking will be key to what Rodney Fitch stated the country needs, which is “healthy shopping is the issue, not healthy high streets”.
The great man retains his retail passion summing up with the unforgettable statement “shopping is the purpose of life”. All of us involved in the retail industry do of course fully agree!